From the Gospel of John:
[Jesus said:] “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 5:25-29 (NRSV) – January 29, 2014.)
There are times when I’m reading one or another of the Gospels and I am pulled up short; I just have stop and say, “Really? Jesus said that? Really?”
This is one of those times! Did Jesus really say (and I paraphrase), “We’re going to get people up out of their graves just so we can punish them.” That’s what verse 29 is saying with that weird turn of phrase “the resurrection of condemnation”; all the dead will be raised, some to life and some to condemnation. (Whether that means an eternity of punishment or simply annihilation is another issue I’ve dealt with before and won’t address again today.)
Maybe what Jesus said ended before this verse; maybe this is John interpreting what Jesus said. Perhaps the quotation from Jesus should end with the words “because he is the Son of Man” and the part that starts “Do not be astonished” is John’s commentary. Could be. It’s an issue that could be solved by judicious use of punctuation. Unfortunately, John didn’t use punctuation and where to insert quotation marks, periods, commas, etc. is left to the “best guess” of modern translators based on noun declensions, verb tenses, and a colloquial understanding of the original language.
You see, punctuation is a modern invention. So are spaces between the words, although they have been around longer than colons, semi-colons, and full stops. Spaces were the bright idea of Irish monks working in early medieval scriptoria about 1400 years ago; punctuation marks came along about a thousand years later. They weren’t even all that common when the translators of the Authorized (“King James”) version made their estimations of where to put them in the biblical text in 1611.
The lack or improper placement of punctuation can lead to interesting misunderstandings. A popular t-shirt design noting that “punctuation saves lives” demonstrates its point with two similarly worded but radically different sentences:
“Let’s eat Grandma.”
“Let’s eat, Grandma.”
Scripture itself contains an example of a misunderstanding which punctuation might have cleared up. In Mark’s Gospel, the writer applies a prophecy of Isaiah to John the Baptizer saying that his is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” (Mk. 1:3) Isaiah, however, seems to have said something slightly different: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'” (Isa. 40:3) Matthew and Luke, relying on Mark, repeat his slightly altered quotation — compare Matt. 3:3 and Luke 3:4. Is the voice crying out in the wilderness or is the way of the Lord in the wilderness? The gospellers and the prophet seem to have a disagreement.
So which is it in John’s Gospel? Should the quotation from Jesus be ended a sentence earlier and the bit about getting people out their graves only to condemn them be attributed to the writer instead? To do so would, I admit, fly in the face of centuries of understanding of Jesus’ words to the Jewish authorities when they confronted him in the Temple following the healing of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda, from which this text is taken. But it’s at least a possibility to consider, and it highlights how carefully one must read scripture.
Punctuation, as the t-shirt says, can save lives. It can also have a significant impact one’s spirituality!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.